Lifestyle

The mental health impact of a year of Covid will be felt long after lockdown lifts


‘I’ve found it difficult to keep going,’ says Amy*, 29. ‘I’ve lived with depression for years, so I didn’t expect it to be this hard.

‘But it just builds up, doesn’t it? I can’t even pinpoint exactly what has happened that’s made my mental state so much worse – it’s all of it, the restrictions, the worry, the isolation, the fear.

‘I’ve come closer to suicide this year than I have for a long time. I felt alone and without any hope.’

Amy, who lives alone in London, certainly isn’t the only person who has struggled with their mental health this past year.

In a survey of 6,305 people by BACP and YouGov, shared exclusively with Metro.co.uk, it was found that of the 67% who said they had experienced any kind of mental health issue in the last five years, 85% said their mental health had been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

And among the people who hadn’t previously experienced mental health issues in the past five years, 48% said the same.

So to break that down, whether you had preexisting mental illness or not, it’s likely the past year has had a not-so-great impact on your wellbeing.

That much seems obvious. After all, we know full well that loneliness, boredom, and loss aren’t a formula for ideal mental health.

But with warnings of a ‘mental health pandemic’ sitting in wait ahead, it’s vital that we dive into the reality of Covid-19’s impact; not only in a year of lockdowns, social distancing, and anxiety, but further into the future, when the risk of coronavirus is low and lockdowns are a distant memory.

How serious is the effect of the past year on our mental health? Will the end of lockdown fix it with the jab of a vaccine needle? And what do we need to do heal what could be the next major health crisis?

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What has the impact of a year of Covid-19 been on our mental health?

More than half of adults and over two thirds of young people said that their mental health has become worse during the period of lockdown restrictions, says a report from charity Mind.

This report notes that restrictions on seeing people, worries about the health of family and friends, boredom, and loneliness are all key factors driving poor mental wellbeing.

Another important thing to consider is the difficulty in asking for help amid a pandemic.

That’s not simply down to a lack of doctor’s appointments and stay at-home orders, but the feeling of guilt connected to struggling mentally when Covid-19 means so many others ‘have it worse’.

Vicki Nash, head of policy and campaigns at Mind, said: ‘It’s no understatement to say that the nation is facing a “mental health pandemic”.

‘Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published in November found that the prevalence of depression has doubled, and NHS data showed a huge increase in urgent and emergency referrals for crisis care.

‘This indicates our mental health has deteriorated across the board – from mild mental health problems through to those reaching crisis point and even needing to be hospitalised.’



Top reasons for worsened mental health during lockdown:

According to a Mind survey, the most common reasons people gave for their mental state deteriorating in lockdown were:

  1. Being unable to see family, friends or partners that they didn’t live with
  2. Feeling anxious about family or friends getting coronavirus
  3. Not being able to go outside except for essential reasons
  4. Feeling bored/restless
  5. Feeling anxious about getting
    coronavirus
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Matt Hawkins, the director of Compassion In Politics, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘People are feeling so many emotions right now and for a range of reasons.

‘Anxiety rates have increased – caused by the fear of catching Covid, uncertainty about the future, and, increasingly, fears about how to re-enter workspaces and social environments.

‘Many people will be grieving – not only for lost loved ones but also for past lives, missed milestones, and forgotten routines.

‘We know as well that depression rates are likely to have increased – brought on by the combined effects of fear, boredom, and isolation.

‘Others might be experiencing stress caused by financial worries, family feuds, or the competing roles many of us have been asked to perform (for example, home-schooling while working from home).

‘Many people are experiencing a profound sense of isolation and loneliness due to the Covid lockdowns.

‘Other factors likely to cause harm to the public’s mental health include the uncertainty of the future, loss of family members and loved ones, and confusion caused by last-minute changes to government policy.’

The effects of collective trauma

Along with the more obvious individual triggers for poor mental health, there’s also the more insidious, tricky-to-see impact that Amy talks about – the overwhelming stress of living in a world where everyone is suffering.

Counsellor Collette Alleyne believes that the past year ‘could cause and has caused’ something called collective trauma – essentially what happens when a traumatic psychological experience is shared by a group of people of any size.

Collective trauma has far-reaching effects, and, if felt across the world such as is the case with a global pandemic, could provoke a mass shift in our mindset, our culture, and our values.

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The concept of collective trauma has sparked a conversation around ‘post-pandemic stress disorder’, which is essentially the same idea: that when you’re experiencing lots of smaller stresses, but that’s part of a larger issue felt worldwide, this can replicate the experience of a severely traumatic event.

Just as with PTSD, the effects of collective trauma can include a worsened ability to deal with stress, difficulty experiencing pleasure, increased anxiety and depression, and a sense that life has lost meaning, that everything is suddenly more difficult, and that you’re down when there’s no obvious trigger. Collette also describes the results as feeling ’emotionally drained’. Sound familiar?

I feel at my lowest for the first time in a very long time. I feel hopeless.

‘While most people understand trauma only to relate to big dramatic events it can also be caused by persistent low level exposure to shocking or stressful environments,’ explains Matt.

‘Even those who haven’t had any direct loss or illness may still suffer trauma as a result of the lockdown and the prolonged state of stress, fear and uncertainty arising from the pandemic.

‘What makes all of this slightly different from trauma is that trauma is more often associated with a one-off traumatic “event”.

‘Covid is not like that. It has been long and drawn-out: it is more like a chronic stressor. This means the pandemic will have had more time to embed itself in the collective psyche.’

Feeling stuck and hopeless? You might be feeling the effects of collective trauma (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Will we ever go back to ‘normal’?

It’s easy to assume that once lockdown is over and vaccines are rolled out, hope will return and misery will ease.

But restoring the nation’s mental health even back to its pre-pandemic state (which wasn’t stellar, let’s be honest) will be no simple task.

The pandemic may have triggered this crisis, but even if Covid-19 disappeared tomorrow, its mental impact wouldn’t vanish along with it.

‘Personally, I don’t think there is a going back to “normal”,’ says Collette.

‘The mental health impact of the past year has affected so many people and will continue for a long time to come,’ says Dr Haydn Williams, chief executive of BACP. ‘Thousands of families have been bereaved and have not been able to have those goodbyes, families have experienced restrictions on funerals and many people have had to grieve in isolation.

‘People will have to come to terms with loss in all its forms, from missing important childhood milestones to significant family celebrations.

‘Beyond this, our changing work and family circumstances, financial insecurity, isolation and general anxiety at the prolonged uncertainty and potential economic fallout all play a role in creating damaging and lasting mental health implications. The list goes on and on.’

Does this mean we’re doomed to eternal despair? Not quite. It just might take us a while to heal and move forward.

To work out exactly how long that might take, it’s worth looking back at previous incidents of collective trauma.

‘A 25-year retrospective look at the 1986 Chernobyl disaster found that, two decades later, first responders still had elevated rates of depression and PTSD,’ notes Matt. ‘Research also shows that mental health problems caused by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina persisted five years after the disaster.’

Some people will be able to move forward with relative ease, slipping straight into rejoicing about post-pandemic life. Others will struggle.

Matt explains: ‘It is likely that people with underlying health conditions or previous experiences of trauma will be most susceptible to the long-term mental health impacts of Covid.

‘These people will not only experience a “re-traumatising” effect but may have had some of their own fears – of isolation especially, for example – reinforced.

‘We know that rates of obsession and compulsion have increased (a side-effect of the loss of control people are experiencing) and these may well have created habits in people that will be difficult to shake-off long after the pandemic has been eradicated.’

What needs to be done to remedy the post-Covid mental health crisis?

Matt raises a key point: ‘Mental health problems will persist if there is no systematic effort made to tackle them.’

We were already in a fairly dire state when it came to the nation’s mental wellbeing. If the pandemic has one positive effect, it could be that it finally pushes us to all take mental illness more seriously, and to take action.

Change was always needed. Now that’s all the more clear.

‘I think we were already experiencing a mental health pandemic and Covid will only make it worse,’ argues Matt. ‘Decades of under-investment in mental health support coupled with a ludicrously unequal society meant that rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness were already on the increase prior to 2020.

‘This is a sign not only that we need to get serious about how we treat mental health issues but that we need to create a society that facilitates good mental wellbeing – a society that is fair, more equal, inclusive, supportive, and compassionate.

Experts and charities are more than ready to step up and guide the government in how to best deal with the tidal wave of mental ill health that’s ready to crash down.

Their recommendations aren’t complex, and primarily focus on simply making mental health a priority.

Many people will be grieving – not only for lost loved ones but also for past lives, missed milestones, and forgotten routines.

‘We need an expansion of choice for people in the psychological therapies they can access, and an increase in the availability and accessibility of services so people can receive support when they most need it,’ says Dr Haydn.

‘It’s been a particularly difficult year for our children and young people, which is why we’re asking government for an emergency resilience fund for headteachers and college principals to be able to provide much-needed counselling support now

‘Funded bereavement support and counselling is urgently needed for people who have lost loved ones over the last year.

‘And we’d like to see government make a firm commitment to support those people who have experienced relationship difficulties in the last 12 months.

‘We need to see mental health given parity of esteem with physical health and not as a response to the pandemic. This was a significant challenge before the pandemic, and has got worse over the year.

‘As the full impact of the pandemic unfolds, the need for urgent therapeutic support will only increase. Professional therapists will play a critical role in the long-term; supporting the mental health of the nation and helping people to return to normality.

‘We’re keen to do all we can to work with government to ensure these needs are met.’

Vicki adds: ‘Everyone experiences mental health problems differently, and there is no “normal” way to respond to a pandemic.

‘It’s really important that everyone – including Government and employers – recognises that people react to change differently. Some of us will need longer to adapt to the changes than others, and many people will continue to need help and support for their mental health beyond lockdown lifting.

‘Patience, flexibility, empathy and timely support in this next phase will be essential.

‘We may not see the full scale of the impact the pandemic has taken on our mental health for months or even years to come.

‘Extra investment in mental health services – especially for those with severe mental health problems and children and young people – is a welcome start but we know much more will be needed in the coming years.

‘The UK Government must also recognise that social factors – such as debt, unemployment, housing and benefits – have a huge impact on our mental health.

‘We’re concerned many people will fall through the gaps when temporary emergency measures introduced to support people hit hardest by coronavirus – including furlough, improved Statutory Sick Pay and easier access to support from benefits – wind down or stop altogether.

Each day just remind yourself – you’re still here, you’re getting through.

‘We need to see the Government put in place alternative support and keep the increased rate of Universal Credit indefinitely, extending it to those who receive support from older disability benefits like Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

‘It is also vital the Government prioritises protecting those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, such as people from different Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups.’

Now isn’t the time to bury our heads in the sand or turn away from people’s pain to celebrate the wins of vaccines and roadmaps out of lockdown.

Our experience of the past year should give us a shake to make a change.

‘We need to be talking about the effect of the pandemic on our mental health, acknowledging it, and working out ways to deal with it,’ says Matt.

‘We should learn the lessons that Covid has taught us about the importance of leisure time, nature, purpose, and community.

‘These ideas should be at the heart of the recovery. We cannot expect to go back to normal and we shouldn’t want to.’

*Name has been changed.


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